måndag 31 december 2007

Southern success story

These Electrostars are not the best designed trains ever to have run in Britain and as they are still being turned out, it is unfortunate that everyone has set their faces against some of the improvements that might have been possible, such as getting some extra width and developing proper long-distance version with doors at the ends instead of in the middle where they cause a draught and overload the heating and air con system and result in wasted space which could be used for more seating. And when the track is less than perfect, the ride is still as wild as ever. But that is how things are in Britain - people refuse to acknowledge problems.

That said, it is usually possible to find a comfortable seat, which is more than can be said for Voyagers, Pendolinos and the latest horrible refurbishment for First Great Western, on which the general verdict is negative. Indeed, for a long journey, I would rather travel in an Electrostar than any of the other trains mentioned.

But the real success story is that the operators and manufacturers have got on top of the complexities of these trains and they are running nearly as reliably as the simple and robust slam door stock which they replaced, so there must be a lot of people out there who deserve a pat on the back.

Train ticket machines

These ticket machines were brought in by Southern a few years ago. They have never been easy to use but at least are more reliable than they were to start with. Even if you know how to use them it does not help if you are stuck behind people who do not. Often they stand with their finger hovering over a keyboard, like someone offered a box of chocolates, who can't make up their mind which one to pick.

The trouble is they have tried to make the machines usable by everyone, but most of the people I know who are not comfortable with computers will not use the machines anyway. In which case they might as well be designed on the assumption that they will be used by people who are familiar with computers, with a windows-style interface, and the keyboard should be a normal one instead of the finicky touch-screen one.

There are now computers with heavy-duty keyboards and trackballs - I saw one the other day on the concourse at Gatwick airport, and that is presumably tough enough to stand up to conditions on railway stations.

Rail franchise musical chairs

The train franchises have been re-let and these trains have been transferred from Central Trains to the re-vamped Cross Country, which was Virgin. The whole operation is like a game of musical chairs. But because each franchise projects itself as a "brand", the liveries change, and the trains have to get repainted. In the meantime, the old company's labels are peeled off but you can see where they were.

In reality, the train operating companies are little more than management companies, and all that is needed are a few window stickers saying "Train Service operated by..." It is a lot of nonsense and nobody is fooled. There are less complaints but that is because people have realised it is a waste of time complaining.

måndag 24 december 2007

Ticket Touting

Ticket Tout, originally uploaded by Dave Hogg.

MPs are calling for action against ticket touts. But what has this to do with the government?

If touts can make a profit from tickets bought from the promoters of concerts and sports events, it indicates that the promoters are choosing to sell them for less than their market value. They obviously have some reason for this, probably because they prefer to sell off as many tickets as possible as soon as possible, leaving the touts to carry the risk of being left with unsold tickets. This sounds like a normal market mechanism working as markets should, to balance out supply and demand.

If it really is a problem, then the concert promoters could adopt various alternatives. They could simply auction all the tickets themselves. Or they could sell the tickets in the same way as as airlines sell their seats, making limited numbers of tickets available at low cost well in advance, and pushing up the prices as the time of the event approaches.

What about things like football matches where the tickets are available at concessionary prices to supporters and so on? All that is necessary to prevent the tickets being sold on is to make them valid only when used in conjunction with some kind of membership or other identity card, in the same way as Students' Railcards are.

Nobody is going to starve or be left living on the streets because they cannot get into a pop concert, and it is worrying that MPs see it as something they should be involved in. More worrying still is that their understanding of fundamental economics is so poor that they do not recognise it is the operation of simple market forces.

The forthcoming financial crash

People who criticise reckless lending by the banks generally fail to mention that this lending has been mostly used to fuel a speculative land price bubble, which closely resembles previous credit-fuelled land price bubbles occurring in 1990 and before that in the early 1970s. Indeed, these boom-bust cycles, based on the foolish assumption that land values will go on rising indefinitely, appear to be disrupted only by major wars, as records show them as having occurred with roughly the same 18 year frequency throughout the nineteenth century.

Whatever measures are taken to stave off a collapse, it is bound to come, and things will eventually pick up after that, though not without a lot of people getting hurt on the way. How can a recurrence be avoided, some time around 2025? Some commentators suggest that what is needed is more regulation. But this will not prevent a recurrence. For one thing, history shows that regulations tend to get dismantled when most needed and detailed circumstances vary; they cannot cater for every eventually. It is the underlying cause, surely, that needs to be dealt with - the finance of land purchase and consumer spending using speculative future land value as collateral. Like a plant feeding only on its own roots, the growth cannot continue indefinitely. Fiscal changes are needed which will make it pointless to speculate on land value and impossible to borrow against. The banks would then need to finance themselves by providing genuine services instead of creating money and lending it at interest on the collateral of bubbled-up land values.

lördag 22 december 2007

Blair and the unborn children

Following his reception into the Catholic Church, SPUC, the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children, and others taking a similar stance, have been criticising Tony Blair's support for the liberalisation of abortion.

"During his premiership Tony Blair became one of the world's most significant architects of the culture of death, promoting abortion, experimentation on unborn embryos, including cloned embryos, and euthanasia by neglect," said John Smeaton, SPUC's national director.

"SPUC is writing to Tony Blair to ask him whether he has repented of the anti-life positions he has so openly advocated throughout his political career."

Perfectly reasonably, in the circumstances, but this focus shows a strange attitude. From their comments, anyone might think that Blair had nothing to do with the evil and illicit invasion of Iraq - as if whilst SPUC and others quite rightly stand up for the rights of the unborn, they fall silent over the rights of the born.

If the empty statements that have characterised his years in office are anything to go by, Blair may be nothing more than a naif at large, and barely culpable for his actions. What is worrying is how the political system can allow anyone like that to become Prime Minister. And his successor looks set to preside helplessly over economic disaster. Any how many more abortions have there been and will there be because parents cannot afford or do not have space for another child as a result of the Blair/Brown economic policies? And will SPUC have anything to say on that subject? Why do some Catholics tolerate cruel and unjust economic institutions and cry out only at the consequences? Whilst others, concentrating on economic issues, advocate Marxist and Keynesian nostrums, whilst ignoring the teachings of the Catholic church on the subject?

Catholic social teaching is seamless and it does nothing but harm to focus on one part to the neglect of the rest.

A long wait to collect the Christmas post

The picture shows only part of the queue outside Brighton sorting office on the Saturday before Christmas - it was more than 100 yards long. If the Post Office can't get your package through the letter box or it needs to be signed for, then they leave a card and the post is taken back to the sorting office and you have to collect it.

Unfortunately the system isn't very good so it takes them a while to find your packet when you give them your card. And they do not seem to have got the idea of having numbered paper tags that you can take, which allows you to go off and do your shopping, so instead, people have to waste their time standing outside in the cold, like this. And being British, they don't complain, and so nothing changes. I feel sorry for the people behind the counter who have to scurry around trying to find people's post, especially as they are probably not in a very good mood after having waited for the best part of an hour, but what kind of managers does the Royal Mail have when they let this kind of thing go on?

fredag 21 december 2007

This Christmas will cost the British economy £21 billion

Rioting Christmas trees, originally uploaded by Edgley Cesar.

So said Steven Alambritis, spokesman for the Federation of Small Businesses, explained this evening.

This begs some important questions, such as how should the economy be measured, what is the economy for and who in Britain will bear this cost?

The trouble is that the questions are not asked, and governments pursue policies whose main purposes is to increase the size of the Gross National Product. Unfortunately, that which the GNP measures has little direct relationship with that which creates in people a sense of pleasure and well-being.

It was Oscar Wilde who famously said, "A cynic is a man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing". If he was right, it would mean that we are now in the age of cynicism, which I do not believe. I just get the impression that collectively, we have lost our ability to see the wood for the trees. That is plain stupidity. But until clarity of vision is recovered, the economy will continue to be an all-devouring monster that is destroying the planet and everything on it, whilst adding little to the sum total of human happiness.

Mid-ocean shopping mall

Giant ferries ply the Baltic between Sweden, Finland and Estonia. They are quite a comfortable way of travelling, and not too expensive. But why are they registered at Mariehamn. Where is Mariehamn? What is Mariehamn? And what are these floating shopping malls about?

Mariehamn, population 10,000, is the capital of Åland, the group of islands off the coast of Sweden, populated by Swedes, that actually belongs to Finland. And it has an odd history. As the Swedish empire was pushed back by Russia from the beginning of the eighteenth century, first Estonia and then Finland, in 1809, came under Russian control and with it the semi-independent of status of Grand Duchy. The Åland Islands were taken over by Russia at the same time.

In 1917, when Finland declared independence, there was a dispute between Finland and Sweden over ownership of Åland. To cut a long story short, the islanders wanted to be part of Sweden, Finland wanted to keep them and the Swedish government had little enthusiasm in getting involved in a conflict. The matter was eventually resolved by the League of Nations, which in 1921 decided it should be part of Finland, on the grounds that Åland is joined to Finland by a continuous archipelago.

Since then, commonsense has prevailed. The islands are semi-autonomous and in 1995 obtained special terms when Finland joined the EU. These include certain tax advantages which the ferry companies make the most of. Which is the reason for these floating shopping malls

torsdag 13 december 2007

The sacrifice of a colombian soldier... for what?

I recently came across a picture of a young Columbian soldier who had his legs blown off in the "war on drugs". I don't pretend to be knowledgeable about the situation in Colombia. But there are obvious parallels with that and events in Afghanistan and some general points to be made.

Because of the desire for drugs in Europe and the US, coca and heroin are very valuable commodities and restricting supply only makes them more so. Hence the determination of criminal suppliers to protect their business and of rival gangs to get a share of the action at any price.

Because of the high cost of buying drugs, many users in the US and Europe descend into a chaotic lifestyle in which their life is dominated by their need to obtain the money for the drug. Hence the amount of property crime by these people. If the government really wanted to reduce the crime figures it would legalise drugs - which is not the same as abandoning control.

The tobacco manufacturers may be nasty outfits. But it is infinitely preferable for powerful commodities like drugs to be in the hands of properly regulated companies than in the hands of violent men acting outside the law.

lördag 8 december 2007

£60 to stand from London to Swansea

This is First Great Western for you. The trains just need to have more carriages.

Unfortunately the platforms at Paddington (below) have been shortened to make a shopping mall where the carriages used to stand so the station would have to be changed back again to what it was before if they are going to run longer trains.

Paddington Station

First Great Western has ruined its trains

Not enough luggage space

First Group has paid some design consultant to refurbish its 30 year old Inter City 125 trains on its Great Western routes. These redesigned trains must be amongst the most unpleasant long-distance trains in Europe. The interiors induce a feeling of claustrophobia. They have stuffed in too many seats too close together, and they are cramped and uncomfortable. They are also arranged in a face-to-back layout, as in coaches and aircraft. This causes trouble with luggage. Coaches and planes have luggage holds, whereas trains do not; on trains, most of the luggage space is between the seat backs. But when the seats all face the same way, the space between the seat backs no longer exists. So there is not enough luggage space at all and people are leaving it in the doors and gangways, blocking them up like this.

The company says that this was done on the basis of a survey which found that passengers wanted more seats on the trains, but it is a dumb survey that does not spell out that packing in more seats will mean cramped seats and insufficient room for luggage. And it is equally dumb to just act on the results of such a survey. Now they need to do another survey which will find that passengers want luggage space and and legroom.

Interior of Inter City 125 train

torsdag 6 december 2007

Who were the Physiocrats?

I have continued my blog with a new web address, one I can remember.

It is www.physiocrat.blogspot.com.

Why Physiocrat and who were they? They were the first people to put the study of political economy on a sound footing. Unfortunately, few today are building on the good work they began.

The Physiocrats were a group of intellectuals in the court of the French King Louis XIV. They were the first to put the study of political economy on a sound footing.

Quesnay (1694–1774), perhaps the best known of them, argued that as all taxes come out of land rent, the multiplicity of taxes then applied in France should be abolished and replaced by just one on the rental value of the land. This was the "impôt unique". Apart from collection of the rental value of land, the Physiocrats held that governments should not interfere in the operation of the economy, since, once the tax was collected, things would more or less look after themselves.

Unfortunately, vested interests have ever since meant that land rents have stayed with the landowners and there is no end to the government interference that goes on.

onsdag 5 december 2007

Ticket touts

Chimaira concert photographs from Tilburg Holland 06/10/03 MORE bands artists singers pop stars www.yoursuperstar.com
Originally uploaded by www.yoursuperstar.com.

There was a piece on the radio this morning about concert promoters who want a cut from people who buy concert tickets and then sell them on at a profit, often using the internet. The obvious question that comes to mind is that if the promoters want their full whack, why don't they just charge more for the tickets in the first place?

As the discussion developed, it turned out that sometimes, the tickets are sold at a discount from the original price. In other words, the intermediaries, the so-called touts, are taking a loss and doing the promoters a favour by taking the tickets off the promoters' hands.

All in all, then, these intermediaries are performing a useful function all round, in providing the promoters with an assured market and customers with an assured supply. It is a kind of insurance, with the "touts" taking part of the risk.

It is sad that public understanding of basic economic principles is so poor that their activities are regarded with opprobrium instead of being recognised as a useful service.

tisdag 4 december 2007

Canon Ixus RIP

I never liked this camera, when the lens jammed I tried to open it up to fix it but all the bits are stuffed in and the task is impossible except for Canon's technicians who charge almost the price of a new camera.

It has lasted just two years and I took around 12000 exposures. All the same, it is unlikely I will be looking for another one of the same make. At least it cost a lot less than film but it has encouraged quantity rather than quality.

All suggestions welcome. I already have an SLR which lives under my bed and almost never comes out so a digital SLR is not for me. Olympus mju 795SW is a possibility.

The argument against religion

There are lots of arguments against religion, but it would be nice if the people who felt that way would at least put their brain cells together, if they have any.

I am going to Peter Atkins' retirement dinner on Friday. He is a buddy of Richard Dawkins, probably Britain's leading atheist. As a Catholic, on the whole I prefer atheists to bible-bashing Protestants. Peter Atkins is the author of some of the best chemistry textbooks ever, but he doesn't seem to have much in the way of a cogent argument against religion, saying that science can explain everything. Actually, as a physical chemist he should know better, as at the quantum scale things go all awry, but that aside, one cannot dismiss people's claims of religious experience as meaningless or delusional . At the very least, it has to be studied as an epiphenomenon of neuroscience, and an aspect of sociology and phychology.

torsdag 29 november 2007

Whither Land Value Taxation in the UK?

If land value taxation (LVT) and the ideas of Henry George are to be promoted, it needs supporters who are familiar with the underlying philosophy and theory. That means they will have gone through the School of Economic Science (SES) economics course. Otherwise their grasp of the subject is always shaky and they are vulnerable to being out-argued or talked into conceding compromises unnecessarily. Whatever one thinks about SES, and I have my reservations, there is nowhere else teaching economics soundly.

The principal organisation for the promotion of the ideas of Henry George in the UK, the Henry George Foundation, appears to be at long last in reliable hands. Subject to the limitations of that organisation as a registered charity, there appears to be no longer any reason why all the activity should not be channelled through that body, and it would probably be advantageous if other Georgist bodies were re-integrated into this mainstream.

The other issue concerns the use of the term Land Value Tax. This may have come to the end of its useful life and there is probably a need to describe what it does in another way, not "just one more tax". And people have different preoccupations and concerns and ways of thinking about the world. We cannot present things the same way we would have done in 1947. This all needs thinking about. SES is at present providing a useful forum for discussion.

The prospects for LVT in Britain are very poor. The public is badly informed and badly educated, and are focussed on trivia and personalities. The press panders to that and provides no leadership. There is a poverty of ideas on both left and right. The alternative centre seems unable to make any mark despite good parliamentary representation. Neither of the two main parties has anything useful to offer and both are apparently committed to the delusion that Britain is a great power that needs to be in a position to project military force around the world. Strange, when we cannot even have clean streets. Thus the best that can be done is to maintain a holding operation. As long as campaigners maintain a realistic view on this and do not imagine we are on the verge of any breakthrough, there is no reason why continuing effort should not be sustained.

onsdag 28 november 2007

Big Green Machine

Steam locomotives are far from being an obsolete technology. On the night of 25/26 August this one was heading a construction train in connection with the installation of a new bridge on the Swiss railways at Thayngen. The steam engine is very popular for permanent way and works trains especially at night because it is practically silent when stationary and less obtrusive when working, which is appreciated especially by local residents.

This is not the whole story either, because unlike a diesel, which is constantly idling even when stationary, no fuel is used while in standby mode. When all the sums are done, it turns out that the greater thermal efficiency of the diesel is negated by the cost of processing the fuel to make it suitable for use in an internal combustion engine, and in these standby losses. Hence it has been found that on the Swiss and Austrian mountain railways where both steam and diesel locomotives run on the same diesel fuel, the former use less as they consume nothing when stationary or running downhill.

The locomotive has been rebuilt from a German Kriegslok constructed in 1944 and intended for no more than a few months' service. The work was carried out by the Swiss engineering companyDampflokomotiv- und Maschinenfabrik DLM AG of Winterthür. Improvements have been incorporated to provide for quick startup and efficiencies around 50% higher than the best that was being achieved when steam locomotives were last used regularly in the 1950s.

Steam locomotives are in many ways ideal for rail traction, where demand for power is intermittent, for example, when starting, accelerating, and on uphill stretches of route. Because the boiler acts as an energy reservoir, the conversion of the chemical energy in the fuel to mechanical energy is separated off from the use of that energy to provide traction. In an internal combustion engine, on the other hand, the engine where the conversion of fuel to mechanical energy takes place has to be sufficiently large to provide for the maximum power demand. And being external combustion devices, steam locomotives are not particularly fussy about the fuel that is used. The use of waste materials is relatively simple and thus the machines can be carbon-neutral.

Steam locomotives are in principle simple, with direct drive from the cylinders to the wheels. By contrast, internal combustion engines used for rail traction require a complex and expensive electrical or hydraulic transmission system, with consequential high manufacturing and maintenance costs and energy losses. Given a reasonably long production run, the cost of steam locomotives should be less than 40% of the equivalent diesel electric.

Unfortunately, so far there have been no takers for the technology, which still has to recapture its credibility amongst conservative railway managers who dismiss it as obsolete. It is unfortunate, however, that the obvious advantages when used, as here, for maintenance trains, have not been recognised.

måndag 26 november 2007

What will cars be like when the oil runs out?

aptera 230 mpg electric 3-wheeled car
Originally uploaded by mod*mom.

The oil will not run out. It will just become more and more expensive. And will people kick the car habit when that happens? Not if they can help it.

What are the alternatives? Hydrocarbons are the perfect transport fuel. They come in convenient liquid form and have a high energy density.

One possible substitute is hydrogen. It can be converted into electricity using a fuel cell, with the cars driven by electric motors or it can be used in an ordinary internal combustion engine, suitably adapted. But fuel cells are likely to be expensive, since they use rare metals such as platinum. And hydrogen is difficult to store and handle, as it does not liquify except at very low temperatures, which makes it awkward and potentially dangerous to deal with. The biggest objection, however, is that energy is needed to manufacture hydrogen. As it does not occur naturally, it is not an energy source but simply a means of storing energy obtained from somewhere else.

What about biofuels? They are fine if they do not have to be grown specially, for example if they are made from waste materials, such as biogas from sewage and landfill sites.. Otherwise, the production of biofuels takes up land, water and other resources needed to grow food. Ethanol, another biofuel, can be made from waste products, though it tends to be made from crops specially grown. And ethanol-powered vehicles emit toxic and irritant gases.

How about electricity? As long as there are only a few electric vehicles, they can be powered by low-cost off-peak electricity which is usually available because nuclear power stations cannot easily be switched off. If there was any substantial number of electric cars all being charged at night, then the demand would quickly grow to the point that there would no longer be an off-peak period.

There is also the issue of batteries. These contain either lead or lithium. The former is toxic and the latter is a fire hazard. The production of both is energy intensive and they have a limited life; fortunately, the metals in them can be recycled quite efficiency. But they are heavy.

There are no easy answers but with the days of cheap portable energy coming to an end, the future of personal transport must be ultra-lightweight vehicles running at speeds where air resistance is not significant, which means around 30kph. And being too flimsy to share the roads with today's heavy vehicles, they will need a suitable infrastructure of their own.

fredag 23 november 2007

Eurostar woes

This is a reminder of what the new Eurostar terminal at St Pancras looked like in 1960. Five billion pounds have been spent and now the train takes only 2 hours 20 minutes to get from London to Paris. But if you make the journey, you need to allow at least 45 minutes for all the messing around beforehand. This is due to the security arrangements which are still bad in London and even worse at Gare du Nord in Paris.

Passengers and luggage are screened for metal objects. Luggage goes on a conveyor belt through a tunnel with some kind of detector, which is unproblematic. At St Pancras, shallow plastic trays are provided for small objects like mobile phones, keys and cameras, and they go on the conveyor belt too. But nobody has thought about providing tables or shelving where passengers can put their things in the trays before they are screened, and back in their pockets afterwards.

Passengers themselves then walk through a metal detector. If you have anything left in your pocket, it will sound the alarm. You will then be frisked as if you were a criminal who had been caught committing a crime and arrested by the police. Unless you like being touched up by a security guard, this is degrading and embarrassing.

The situation at Gare du Nord is even worse. No boxes for small objects are provided (strange this, because they have them in the station left luggage office downstairs). So you have to take everything out of your pockets and show it to the French customs official. But there is only a tiny space to put all the things on. And I had to go through the metal detector gate five times before I was clear. So there is my stuff, including camera and lenses, balanced precariously on a small area a metre above the concrete floor, while the official pokes around with it. Who pays for my Leica if it drops on the floor, I wonder?

The French customs official with whom I dealt with was particularly stupid and awkward, insisting on opening a factory-sealed box of 35mm films, which is not a good thing to do with films. What did he think was in the box, clearly marked FUJI?

I also had trouble with the ticket, which got jammed and they had to open up the machine to get it out. This is probably because I had folded it, but the tickets are too big to get in a wallet and are likely to get folded.

So I complained to one of the Eurostar crew on the train and was given a telephone number, which I rang next morning. The person I spoke to said she knew exactly what I was talking about, having had the same problem. Presumably, Eurostar's senior managers also have the same experience. Which makes one wonder whether the company has ever heard of Quality Circles, a Japanese invention, where staff at all levels come together to consider ways of improving whatever it is the company produces. Or is the whole affair just taken for granted and regarded as inevitable by all concerned? Or, to put it another way, are their brains in neutral?

The solutions are straightforward. British credit-card style tickets will fit in a wallet without having to be folded, and if necessary they can be provided with a chip with additional information that can be detected by an electronic reader.

As for the security, there really is a need for a sane approach to the problem. The risk needs to be determined and appropriate measures put in place. If the aim is to prevent terrorism, the present arrangements are counter productive, since they force passengers to gather whilst awaiting screening, thereby making them particularly vulnerable to attack. And any serious terrorists would take account of the security measures and adopt tactics which worked round them. I am not going to spell out the possibilities, but they are so numerous that the security measures amount to little more than a charade that inconveniences passengers. There are in any case other targets, presently unguarded, that would be of far more interest to a terrorist.

But assuming that there is a rationale behind the present screening system, then it should at least be organised so that it is less troublesome. There should be a stack of boxes just inside the screening area. The boxes should be big enough to contain people's outdoor clothing ie the same size as household storage containers, about 40 x 50 x 30 high, in assorted colours so that they could be identified. There should be tables or shelves at a convenient height so that people can put their things in the boxes, with trolleys available so that people can take the box, together with their luggage, to the screening machine.

Once screened, passengers would then take their box to another shelf or table and put their outdoor clothes on again, again with trolleys available.

It is shocking that this situation has been allowed to arise, with, seemingly, nobody giving a thought to the procedure to make it run as smoothly as possible.

I have already given up on Eurostar for journeys to northern Europe, as the ferry is cheaper, quicker and more comfortable. Now I am just giving up on Eurostar for trips to France as well until I hear they have sorted themselves out. There is none of this at the smaller ferry terminals, so I will go back to using the boat, which is not all that slower because there is no need to travel up to London and the port is quite close. I do not like being treated like a criminal.

POSTSCRIPT After a couple of months I received a letter from Eurostar expressing their concern and assuring me they are looking into the problem and will try to get it resolved.

Government computer bungle

This week's Inland Revenue computer bungle is beyond belief. Why do the government's departments not have access to each others' data over a secure computer network?

But if there really is no alternative to sending data out on discs by post, why was it not encrypted with a unique encryption key sent separately to the recipient?

Any teenage hacker would know how to do it so why is this not standard practice in government departments?

Perhaps this is the explanation. In British culture, anyone who knows about science and technology is dismissed as a nerd. This has always been the case. At the root of the problem is the idea that the highest form of life is to be a country gentleman landowner with an income ie to be a parasite. This goes back to the days of agricultural enclosures and the slave trade.

When the present generation of senior politicians and civil service mandarins were at university in the 1950s and 1960s, most of them studying at Oxbridge, the science students were dismissed as the Grey Men - who were usually people from the old grammar schools.

There was a pecking order. At the top were men who spend their time with the Christ Church and New College Beagles and usually got Fourths, if they were not sent down. If they took any part in public life at all, they might have become Conservative Party grandees. Next came a self-styled elite, mostly from public schools, who took subjects like Classics, Philosophy Politics and Economics and Law. These became the Civil Service mandarins and politicians. And they were the ones who ran Britain. Few of them had even a clue about anything to do with science and technology, consequently any policy area which requires such knowledge is in a shambles, which is virtually everything the British government touches.

That generation is approaching retirement, but fewer and fewer students have been opting for science and maths, preferring the softer subjects like media studies, while the most able have generally swallowed the idea that the way to make money is to push money around and go into the financial sector. The situation can only get worse.

onsdag 14 november 2007

St Vincent de Paul

Soup runs have come under criticism recently for encouraging dependency and ignoring people's real problems. I would not like to comment on this as the circumstances in which people accept what is given out by soup runs is so varied. One can envisage lonely people just going there for the company.

There has been one on the seafront at Brighton for many years, run under the auspices of the Society of St Vincent de Paul. People from our parish go out every evening in all weathers to hand out soup and sandwiches to people, mostly young men, who live in the city. One of the stalwarts was Ann Roberts, who died last year, and the picture shows the dedication of a bench that was placed on the spot in her memory.

Who was St Vincent de Paul? There is plenty of information on him: in short, he came from a peasant family and became a priest in the French court in the middle of the seventeenth century. At that time, the courtiers' wives lived pointless and extravagant lives, and he urged them to good works, in this case, to go out and help the poor of Paris.

The women of the court responded marvellously, which was all very well but what if he had encouraged the rich courtiers to investigate the causes of the poverty and see the connection between it and their own great wealth? In the following century, the French Physiocrats did precisely this, and when Louis XIV was king, and Anne Robert Jacques Turgot, Baron de Laune, had been appointed Comptroller-General, an attempt was made to put the proposed solutions into practice. There is every reason to suppose that their schemes would have worked, but vested interests prevailed and the ideas of the Enlightenment were gathering strength. It was too late, and the French Revolution was the result.

Freemasons and Catholics

Catholics are not allowed to become Freemasons. My father was a Freemason for many years and rose to become Worshipful Master of his lodge. He suggested that I might like to join, but, being forbidden to do so, I declined.

It is sometimes suggested that the Freemasons are plotting to destroy the Catholic church. The subject came up for discussion the other day, as it does from time to time, and the case of Cardinal Bugnini is sometimes cited. Bugnini, an alleged Freemason, was the principal architect of the revised Catholic liturgy, which seems to have done the Catholic church no good at all.

Never having been associated with Freemasonry, I know little about it apart from what has been published by Freemasons themselves. It has been described by one as "a system of morality taught by role-playing in small-scale allegorical theatrics, with the addition of lectures and catechisms to which the candidate gives set answers to set questions."

Freemasonry has a mythic origin claiming to be descended from the masons who constructed the Temple of Solomon, and passed down via the Knights Templar to modern times. The rituals, known as "workings", are a representation of the ancient practices. Modern Freemasonry in English speaking countries appears to have taken shape, initially in Scotland, in the earlier years of the eighteenth century and is said to have drawn on ideas of the Enlightenment. Mozart, famously, was a Mason and, as The Magic Flute portrays, it seems that Wisdom was the highest ideal.

Freemasonry flourished in France as an Enlighenment movement in the eighteenth century and promoted notions of egalitarianism, which no doubt helped to nuture the ideas behind the French Revolution, when the Goddess of Wisdom was enshrined in the cathedral of Notre Dame. And of course it can be no accident that the currency of the United States carries masonic emblems.

There is a clearly a spritual content to Freemasonry, but because there are varieties of the practice, there will inevitably be different spritualities. All require a belief in a Deity and in the afterlife, and some require members to be Christians and have their origin in the Catholic refugee flight from Scotland in the seventeenth century. The spirituality has Gnostic and Rosicrucian elements.

So what does this mean for Catholics and the Catholic Church? The usual objection is that Freemasonry is esoteric - that is, members are initiated into the teachings of the organisation in a step-by-step manner, whereas the Catholic Church is an open path. But there is a good reason for this. Any ordinary academic subject is naturally pursued step-by-step. It is often the case that what is comprehensible to a student who has studied a discipline in the correct order will seem nonsensical if presented to a beginner. And Catholicism is not really an open system either, as the doctrines and dogmas of the Catholic Church, which make sense to a believer, appear nonsensical or oppressive to someone who has contact with them for the first time. Some of the teaching of the Catholic Church make no sense to anyone who has not experienced "conversion" and thereby received the "gift of faith". This is why the Catholic church comes under criticism for its views on all sorts of things, whereas to those who have received this gift of faith, they make complete sense.

Given this experiential dimension to Catholicism, it can reasonably be argued that it is itself gnostic, at least to the extent that Catholics have no need to become Freemasons. Should they feel drawn in that direction, they should make a more positive effort to commit themselves to their Catholicism. Were they to join, it would result in confusions and they should most certainly obey the teaching of the Church in this matter.

As to whether there is a plot to destroy the Catholic Church - it seems that Freemasonry encompasses a diversity of practices, some of which might possibly be anti-Catholic in sentiment. But as Catholics must not become Freemasons and what goes on in the Masonic rites is confidential, no trustworthy information will ever be revealed.

But there is no need to invoke the notion of a Masonic plot to account for the decline of the Catholic Church in Western Europe since 1960. The damage is self-inflicted and unfortunately continuing. The clergy responsible are going to have a lot to answer for. This is not a new thing; the Catholic hierarchy were reluctant to challenge the unjust status quo in eighteenth century Europe, thereby creating the breeding ground for the French Revolution. Even people like St Vincent de Paul seem not to have questioned the economic system which created the class of poor on which he and his patrician women associates lavished their charity.

There is no need to invoke conspiracy theory. The Catholic church comes under attack when Catholics stop proclaiming Christianity and conducting themselves as Christians.

The photograph is of the Freemason's headquarters in London

måndag 12 november 2007

Does Britain really need more high speed railway lines?

I will be travelling on the new high speed Eurostar line next week. It opens on Wednesday and will knock 20 minutes off the journey time from London to Paris, which means I can have a later start and still catch my connection. It will be quite useful for me as I use the Eurostar service once or twice a year.

The opening of the line, called HST1, prompted an article in Rail magazine (7 November) by the expert Jim Steer, arguing that there is a need for more high speed lines in Britain. What he says is unconvincing, and I drafted the letter below, but had to shorten it to 250 words before I sent it off, so here is the thing in full.

It is natural that the opening of the new high speed line will have whetted people's appetite for more. But the case for more high speed lines does not follow from Jim Steer's analysis.

Continental TGV lines have mostly utilised existing routes into city centres. But Jim Steer's article refers to the looming capacity problems on lines leading into the large conurbations in Britain, and so the option of using existing rights of way is not available. Although, as he says, new lines into cities like London, Birmingham and Manchester will be needed to relieve the congestion, they will pass through densely developed areas, making them very costly. They alone may well consume all the funds available for new rail infrastructure. For this and general reasons of cost-effectiveness, these new lines could perhaps more usefully take the form of new suburban routes for continental sized high capacity commuter trains, thereby releasing extra paths on the existing tracks.

This is why there is a need to examine the overall picture. In thirty years' time, energy will be expensive. This will tell particularly against the private car, which is inherently energy-inefficient, and against air travel. There will be less competitive pressure against rail travel and less demand for fast journeys to attract passengers to the railway. At the same time, the railways themselves will be seeking to reduce energy consumption, and running at top speeds of not more than about 160kph is an important way of achieving fuel economy. Given that 90% of rail journeys in Britain are less than 90 miles long, the time savings gained by running at higher speeds are of little value to the majority of passengers; few people make long distance journeys more than a couple of times a month.

There is also a need to set priorities. People experience transport difficulties most acutely in the trips they make daily - going to work, getting the children to school, etc. Even the simplest of journeys, like walking to the shops or park, or cycling to college, has become problematic - indeed, dangerous - because most British cities have become overwhelmed with cars, trucks and buses. Investment in high speed rail does not address this. Moreover, as Jim Steer notes in his article, long distance travel involves journeys over local networks, and so improvements to these will automatically reduce door to door times and encourage people to leave their cars at home.

As for the argument that high speed rail will improve the economic performance of the regions, this could be achieved at fraction of the cost by reconstructing the tax system to take account of geographical advantage and disadvantage; at the moment, people are expected to pay the same tax per unit of wealth created, regardless of whether they are operating their business in the middle of the City of London or in a marginal location such as remote Caithness.

There may well be a case for new high speed rail lines, but it needs to be made within a balanced set of policies which do not neglect people's mundane day-to-day travel needs, looking ahead to a time when energy is substantially more expensive than it is today.

söndag 11 november 2007

New taxes will hurt small firms that try to go green

Energy Saving
Originally uploaded by Neil101.

Small businesses that want to do their bit for the environment face higher tax bills.

An article in today's Independent on Sunday states...
"The Conservatives have warned that SMEs that want to tackle climate change and install green energy technology will face a hike in their tax charges.

"The Valuation Office Agency (VOA), an arm of Inland Revenue, is preparing to tax solar panels, wind turbines and micro-generation technology with higher business rates and council tax. This follows news that Gordon Brown is set to abandon Tony Blair's targets on renewable energy.

"The small print of last month's pre-Budget report revealed that "the installation of micro-generation equipment in business premises can trigger an increased liability for business rates".

"Parliamentary Questions have also revealed that green energy measures will result in higher council tax bills. Such measures can push a home into a higher council-tax band when the house is sold or after council tax revaluation. The VOA is already undertaking training and preparations for the revaluation..."

One might think that this is crazy, but it is a logical consequence of Britain's property tax system. The solution is to exempt all buildings and improvements from property tax assessments and to tax on the rental value of the site alone, on the assumption that it was at it optimum permitted use.

Unfortunately, such is the power of the clique of vested interests that has Britain's politicians and civil servants in its pocket, that this simple and sensible measure is promptly struck off the political agenda whenever it is suggested.

torsdag 8 november 2007

Shome mishtake shomewhere?

The house a couple of doors away is for sale. They are asking £390,000. They would certainly get £360,000 so they are obviously trying it on a bit, but I don't blame the owners for that and they will have to find somewhere else. They have probably realised the schools round here are no good.

Twenty five years ago the price of the house would have been about £30,000. Of course it is not the house that has gone up in value but the land it is standing on. The government claims to be concerned about the shortage of affordable "homes" and is proposing to allow the building of hundreds of thousands of new houses.

But this morning, a commentator on the radio was saying that there is a risk of house prices falling as this would have all sorts of dire effects. Of which, presumably making houses more affordable is one of the dire effects. And so this commentator suggested that interest rates should come down to keep the prices buoyant and prevent a fall.

So which is it? Are high house prices a good thing or a bad thing? Can someone please explain? There seems to be some mistake somewhere.

måndag 5 november 2007

Laptop computer failures - blame the EU?

I got a three year old IBM Thinkpad computer for a friend and it packed up after a few months. It is not entirely dead, but the fault is with the display, which sometimes works and sometimes does not. Apparently it is a widespread problem both with Thinkpads and Apple Mac laptops. The Graphics Processor Unit, a surface-mounted chip, becomes detached from the motherboard due to a combination of failure of the soldered joints and flexing of the motherboard.

It turns out that the root cause of the problem is the use of lead-free solder, as required by the EU's Restriction of Hazardous Substances Directive, which came into force in 2003.

The lead/tin alloys used in traditional solder have peculiar properties which is why they have long been used for making joints in electrical, electronic and plumbing work. The physical chemistry of this is explained here

Lead is of course extremely toxic and there are problems associated with both the extraction and manufacture of lead and lead products, and with their disposal at the end of their useful life. But if the alternatives result in a short-lived product, that is not environmentally friendly either.

It looks as if the legislation has been promoted by politicians and civil servants who do not know what they talking about as they do not understand the science.

The way round the problem is not to ban lead but to ensure effective re-use and end of lifecycle recovery. One of the issues affecting the life of computers is the production of new software which makes ever more stringent demands on the hardware, which, assuming it is of sound manufacture, is discarded only part of the way through its useful life, which is typically about twelve years. This has been the root cause of the mountain of electronic scrap. For the individual, this is good news as serviceable computers are available at no cost. If they are fitted with a new hard disc and the Linux operating system and software are installed, they will do everything that most people use their computers for. But it has been bad news for the environment.

In this light, surely what is needed are directives on software efficiency and the recycling of electronic scrap?

The absurdity of it is that the amount of lead used in electronic equipment is tiny compared with the amount used in car batteries and buildings, for which there is no effective substitute.

Should you have a dead laptop which has stopped working due to failure of the soldering under the GPU, you may be able to resuscitate it. There is a lot of discussion of the matter on the internet. It can be temporarily cured by putting something under the chip to force it back into contact. A risky but effective procedure is to re-flow the solder, which will effect a long term cure.

Hopefully the manufacturers might come up with a solution, but it is not a simple matter and they should have been given the opportunity to do this before the legislation came into effect. As it is, thousands of consumers have been saddled with computers that have to be thrown away after a short life.

lördag 3 november 2007

The Corruption of Banking

Towers of Mammon
Originally uploaded by seadipper.

Banks perform essential functions in society. They provide people with a place to leave their money. And they give credit. Farmers, for instance, need credit so that they can live between the time they plant their seeds and when the crop has been harvested and sold, when the credit is extinguished.

Trouble has arisen because banks lend money for land purchase, or proxies for land purchase, and do it on the basis of using the capital value of the land as collateral for the loan.

The effect of this is to stoke up land prices. And the more land prices rise, the happier the banks are to advance money, again using the land as collateral. This leads to periodic land price bubbles. Then things go bad. The real value of land it its annual rental, which is not subject to the bubble effect to anything like the same extent. Yields, as a percentage of selling prices, gradually drop, which is acceptable to investors only so long as people think that prices are going to keep on growing. Eventually, the realisation dawns that the growth has come to an end, and then there is a crash. It seems to happen every 18 years or so. An economic depression follows. It can last five years or so before confidence starts to return and the cycle begins again.

We are now in the feverish stage of the cycle. Bank have been doing all sorts of stupid and barely honest things, like lending to people who cannot pay the money back, imagining that it does not matter because of the security of the rising value of the land being used as collateral, and then selling-on the bad debt. Both the borrowers and the banks are going to be in trouble.

The underlying problem is that the rental value of land is retained by the owner instead of being taxed away. This is how capital values attach to land in the first instance, as land purchase is the purchase of a rental stream. Once that happens, land prices froth up as they reflect the expectations of a larger rental stream in the future. Then land becomes a speculatively traded commodity. And that is the whole problem. The corruption of the banks is a side-effect.

Under a system where land rental value was taxed away, land would have no significant selling price. Banks would have no option but to make their loans on the basis of the credit-worthiness of the borrower. And competition would make prices fall. There would be no necessity to charge interest because charges for credit would need to be no more than was required to cover the cost of administration and to cover the possibility of default - a kind of insurance premium. This is the key to an honest banking system.

Latest food scare

what puts the great in great britain
Originally uploaded by lomokev.

Two traditional British staples, bacon and beef, are the latest food scares. It would be nice to think there was going to be some commonsense on the subject but I fear another panic response.

To judge from the size of them, some people are obviously eating too much. A full English breakfast is calorie-laden, it is true, but you feel full up for hours afterwards. Too little exercise, too much beer and too many sugary soft drinks also play their part in the prevalence of fatness. And a lot of bacon is not worth eating. It oozes white stuff and smells of pigs' wee.

But now we are told that bacon and beef cause cancer. The relationship is not a surprise, especially in the case of meats cured using sodium nitrite. If these foods sit inside the gut, they can fester away and produce carcinogens.

So the solution is a simple one. There is not need to stop enjoying these foods now and again. But they need to be eaten as part of a balanced diet with plenty of vegetables, fruit, wholemeal bread and other things with roughage, to keep everything moving through the digestive system.

So the breakfast of bacon and eggs is probably best started with a bowl of porridge and a roast be followed by fresh fruit such as an apple or whatever is in season. And the fried bread should be the proper wholemeal stuff.

Bacon and beef are not addictive drugs and having them once or twice a week in the context of a balanced range of foods is not going to endanger health.

I shall continue to enjoy a Full English and a roast once in a while.

fredag 2 november 2007

Oxford - redevelopment of the Lucy factory

This was an iron foundry until about ten years ago and now they have built very expensive apartments. But what a strange thing to have this mixture of styles, part of which is meant to look like Victorian warehouses, which is not what the previous buildings looked like.

torsdag 1 november 2007

Not coming soon to a street near you

The Department for Transport has published a new 90 page document setting out long term strategy, Towards a Sustainable Transport System, which builds upon the Eddington and Stern reports published earlier this year.

The topic has been sliced up into five sets of policy aims: Gross Domestic Product growth; Health and Safety; Preventing Climate Change; Quality of Life; and Social Equity. This is perhaps a reasonable way of assessing policies but it seems an odd approach to developing those policies.

Achieving GDP growth has been an important target of government for many years, the assumption being that it is the only way of lifting the poor out of poverty. But there are two fallacies here. The first is to equate GDP with well-being, when experience is that some growth has a negative effect on quality of life, and present means of measurement do not attach the necessary minus sign to such "growth". The second fallacy is the assumption of the famous trickle-down effect to bring the benefits to those who are less well-off.

There is discussion of a broad range of transport-related issues. Although it claims to be opposed to continuing with the old predict-and-provide policies, it assumes that investment needs to be focussed where the pressure is greatest. This would not in itself be unreasonable if the present pattern of settlement and industry in Britain were a natural thing, as seems to be the prevailing assumption. But it is not. Over 85% of the population of Britain is concentrated into a corridor which includes London, Birmingham, Bristol, Liverpool, Manchester and Leeds, less than a quarter of the land area. Within that area, however, people are quite dispersed, to the extent that they have become dependent on road transport. Yet in principle, there is no reason why many more people could not be living in fairly compact cities outside this corridor. An important reason why it does not happen is the tax system, which inhibits economic activity in otherwise marginal locations, thereby making them sub-marginal.

The document refers to persistent regional differences in income and productivity, without considering the possibility that these could be a simple effect of geography about which nothing can be done. The notion is reasonable enough; anyone operating their business in, say, Tyneside, will inevitably have additional transport and other costs. This difference in desirability between regions is reflected in differences in land values, but it is not recognised by the tax system which does not distinguish between thriving productive enterprises in the most favourable locations in the country - the City of London, for instance - and outfits struggling to survive in remote Caithness. Until this issue is dealt with, nobody can tell what the natural pattern of settlement in Britain might be.

There are suggestions of possible schemes, such as a new railway between London, Birmingham and Manchester, but with all the references to end-to-end journeys and quality of life, one might have expected to see an emphasis on local travel. It is good that the authors of the report have acknowledged the importance of those parts of the journey from, for example, home to the railway station, because one people have got into their cars, they are likely to want to make the entire journey in them. But there is little said about how to ease people out of this dependence on cars, through, for instance, the relatively low cost investment to improve conditions for pedestrians, cyclists and people trying to move about inside towns and cities. In this context, and bearing in mind the desire to reduce carbon emissions, there is clearly a role for electric trams, which receive just one mention in the entire report. They are unlikely to be coming soon to a street near you.

There are some good things said, such as the need to avoid expensive flagship schemes, to focus on the whole journey and to consider all the external effects. Important things are left unsaid, however. Transport infrastructure is one of the major elements that goes to creating and sustaining land value, but in the absence of any coherent mechanism for capturing land value, the benefits of infrastructure investment are pocketed by landowners. The Treasury is presumably aware of this and it may be one reason why it is reluctant to put up the cash for new schemes.

As a whole, then, the report does not convey the sense that much of value will come out of it, partly because it is a difficult text to read, clumsily phrased and loaded with jargon and managementspeak. The document is constructed of sentences containing thirty or forty long words apiece. Writing of this kind is not conducive to clear thinking, and what became of plain English? Before things like this are published, they ought to be read out aloud and revised by a group of three or four people. There is no better way of making sure that the result is readable and jargon replaced by proper English words and sentences. If the government is serious about promoting an informed discussion on this or any other topic, it needs to communicate better than this.

Apart from the obvious uncertainties about the future, perhaps the most serious difficulty for long term planning of the kind envisaged is that the decisions are being made for people who are themselves makers of decisions, and what they decide depends on the options that have been made available to them. To that extent, government remains in a leadership role, where responding to the views and preferences thrown up in focus group discussions is an abdication of the responsibilities that go with government. Where government lacks a vision for the future, it has no option but to go along with the prejudices of focus groups and to push out surveys with loaded questions. If, on the other hand, it presented a picture of what kind of a transport system we might have in thirty years' time, it would give people something less vague to talk about and it would be possible to have a debate that the public could involve itself in. If the vision that emerged from such a debate was something that captured the imagination, support would be forthcoming and there would be a definite aim to move towards. If there was no support, the government would have to look in another direction. As it is, things will continue to drift.

onsdag 31 oktober 2007

Huge queue to get in to the London Dungeon

London Dungeon Queue
Originally uploaded by seadipper.

The latest advert promotes a simulation of a hanging, and presumably this is the attraction. No doubt if public hanging was reintroduced, it would become a popular spectacle, possibly even more than football.

This raises an interesting possibility. If it were televised and streamed over the internet, the rights would be worth a fortune, so one could envisage hanging, drawing and quartering being put out to tender as a PFI initiative. It would probably be won by one of the US firm operating in Iraq, like Blackwaters. They might botch the odd execution but what the heck.

torsdag 25 oktober 2007

Northern Rock and its aftermath - missing the financial point

The Bank of England and the financial commentators are missing the point about the recent Northern Rock crisis. The Guardian's commentator, Larry Elliott said today...

'The City risks financial turmoil on a renewed and intensified scale unless it learns the lessons from a catalogue of weaknesses evident in the run-up to this summer's credit crunch, the Bank of England warns today. The Bank says Britain's financial system is vulnerable to further shocks after ignoring repeated warnings about the "seriously flawed" model used by institutions to expand lending rapidly in recent years.

'It admits it would need to learn its own lessons from the handling of the three-day crisis at Northern Rock - the first run on a big UK bank in almost 150 years - but said there were already signs of a return to the lax lending practices that were the root cause of the freezing-up in financial markets, in Britain and globally.

'In its half-yearly Financial Stability Review, the Bank is critical of the way banks made risky loans and then passed them on to other institutions. "The 'originate and distribute' business model, which has facilitated rapid growth and strong profitability at major financial institutions in recent years, has been shown to have significant flaws," the FSR says. "These include inadequate information about the true credit risk underlying financial instruments; an excessive dependency on rating agencies, opaqueness about the distribution of risks in the financial system; over-reliance on continuous liquidity in financial markets; and inadequate liquidity risk management." '

Banks create money out of nothing. This can be for a perfectly legitimate purpose. Classically, it was for an enterprise such as farming, where the farmer had to survive between the time the seeds were planted and the crop was harvested and sold. The reality was that this credit enabled the farmer to live off previous years' production. The bank could be fairly certain that the credit would be repaid, unless some disaster intervened.

But when money is loaned for land purchase, things are different. Land purchase - usually wrapped up as house or other property purchase - is, in principle, nothing more than the purchase of a stream of rental income, real or imputed. The problem arises in the first instance because expectations of future increases in the rental stream are factored into the capital value. A further issue then comes into play, because land becomes a commodity to be traded in speculatively.

When loans for land purchase are secured on land prices in a market where speculative trading is going on, increasing amounts of money will become available for buying land, driving prices up higher and higher. Eventually, they will reach a point where returns on this "investment" fall to the point where, even with expectations of future income growth, the yield is unacceptable. At this stage, the market falters and crashes, with people who purchased at the peak finding themselves with large debts and an asset that is worth less than the amount borrowed. This then becomes a problem for the lenders whose loans are secured on a value that no longer exists. Historical evidence indicates that the process is cyclic, with a period of about 18 years.

Northern Rock's problems, which are related to a larger scale disruption in the USA, are an inevitable consequence of the financial system. Better oversight or control is not going to prevent these periodic financial disruptions.

If the right system of land value taxation were in place, the rental stream accruing to land ownership would be small or non-existent. Land would not be traded in the way that it is under the present arrangements which leave the rental income stream with the land owner. Land holders would be taking on the liability to pay the annual land value tax, which would still entitle them to use the land for whatever they wanted, just as leaseholders today are willing rent premises in order to use them for their business. There would be no point in holding land speculatively, however, as there would be nothing to speculate in, because the true rental value is always captured and land as such would effectively have no selling price.

The banks, deprived of the opportunity to lend on land purchase, would be limited to make their advances on the strength of the creditworthiness of the borrowers, without reliance on the shaky collateral represented by inherently volatile land values - as has been proved historically.

This change is a prerequisite for bringing about the necessary reform to promote good practice in the banking system.

tisdag 23 oktober 2007

Race and intelligence again

Intelligence itself is a murky concept - the notion of using poison gas during the first world war was conceived by one of the most brilliant scientists of the time. But primarily, it is the ability to make high scores in intelligence tests, for what they are worth.

Intelligence tests arose through the need to predict future performance, and they are of some, though limited value. But even if they showed that individuals from particular ethnic groups had a tendency to score high or low, there are so many other factors involved that it would be difficult if not impossible to establish to what extent there was a genetic component.

In the case of people of African descent, possible non-genetic causes of low scores in these tests would be cultural factors, poor nutrition and childhood illness, and poverty, which can mean that parents are so busy trying to survive that they are unable to give their children the necessary time to promote their intellectual development.

In so far as low intelligence (whatever that means) is a poverty issue, it would be cruel to try, out of reasons of policial correctness, to pretend there is not a problem when there is, and which needs to be addressed.

måndag 22 oktober 2007

Armed guard at US embassy

Looks like Judge Dredd. I think it is dangerous to walk this way.

This used to be an open building. Now it has been turned into a fortress. It is hideous. And in a Conservation Area, too!

What has the USA done to make itself such a target?

Ethical Travel

I saw an article today in a publication called "Ethical Consumer", about the benefits of travelling by rail. But having done so extensively over the past couple of years, it is easy to understand why so many people do not. It can take a lot of determination and effort to use the train instead of driving or going by plane.

Long distance (international) travel by rail is troublesome these days, mostly due to the difficulty of buying tickets. Some railways have confusing and awkward web sites. Others will refuse to sell tickets for other than the most popular routes and destinations or will not accept payment by foreign credit or debit cards. Poor computer systems are another hazard. It can take up to a quarter of an hour to buy a ticket from their Rail Europe shop in London as staff struggle with their terminals; there was a two-hour queue there recently. Yet another is being told that trains are fully booked when they are not, due to badly designed reservation systems which do not allocate the same seat to different passengers each travelling on only part of the route. I have travelled in "fully booked" trains which were never more than 60% full. A further difficulty is the inflexibility of having to travel on a particular train, and passengers are told that a train is fully booked when this is not so. Altogether, things are too complicated; If you succeed in booking a return journey to Stockholm, you will end up with two dozen tickets!

Earlier this year my attempt to travel to Sweden by train failed entirely. I was unable to book a return journey on Eurostar, as my return was too far ahead to be on the computer system and was offered a single ticket at an extortionate amount. Then the UK office of Deutsche Bahn was unable to renew my Bahncard, so I gave up on the idea of the train. Instead, for the same money I travelled to and from Denmark on the luxury cruise ferry, with my own cabin with sea view, and dinners and breakfasts. That got me most of the way with no trouble, on one ticket!

Conditions on the actual journey are often not what they ought to be either. Some trains, like the Danish IC3 and German ICE designs, are reasonably spacious and pleasant, with seats well placed in relation to the windows. But seating layouts on many trains are cramped and poor, and because it is common practice to book everyone into a particular seat, people often end up being allocated a place which is not to their liking; from many "window seats", all that can actually be seen is a bit of curtain. This happens even on a scenic route like Oslo to Bergen, which is like going to an opera and finding one's view blocked by a pillar. Then a game of musical chairs takes place with people moving from one empty seat to another, as and when they are available.

Luggage storage is often a problem. On older trains there is usually a good space between seat backs, which means one can keep one's luggage close by, but the vogue for airline style seating on trains means that these spaces do not exist. Thus, on busy Swedish trains, luggage just collects in a heap on the floor, while on the Thalys between Cologne and Paris, luggage sometimes has to be stuffed into the doorway and unloaded onto the platform at stations just so that people can get off the train.

Double-deck trains are another bugbear for people with luggage, as it has to be dragged up flights of stairs, again, with nowhere to put it. In Finland (picture), I found that an attempt had been made to deal with the problem by providing lockers by the doorways, but they were only big enough for medium sized cases.

If people are going to return to using rail in any numbers, there is a need to analyse and cater for passengers' needs, starting with the time they are planning their journey.

söndag 21 oktober 2007

Observer Journalist advocates Local Income Tax

William Keegan has been writing for the Observer for too long. He is an unreconstructed Keynesian, which means that while he is very good at putting his finger on economic problems, he almost never has anything useful to say about what should be done about them.

Today, he wrote a piece in support of the Liberal Democrats' proposal to fund local councils by means of a local income tax. Now, such taxes do exist elsewhere, so they are not completely impracticable. But the pages of technical papers like Computer Weekly report constant problems over computer software and large scale mistakes, and tax systems need to be simplified, not made more complicated. The tax system already costs about £25 billion a year to run, about 6% of what is collected, to say nothing of the £130 billion of lost production annually that results due to the way it kills off economic activity.

The administrative problem is this. Most people work for an employer, who will have staff working in different local authority areas. Under a system of local income tax, the PAYE system would become more complex as employers would have to deduct tax at different rates and the correct amounts would somehow have to be remitted to the different local authority areas. This means that somebody would have to keep track of people's addresses, to ensure that the were living where they said they were and not in some fictitious address where local tax was low. This is one of the problems that killed off the poll tax.

It gets worse. Apparently, investment income cannot be taxed in this way, and so it would not be related to ability to pay. And how would second homes be taxed? Or wouldn't they?

Advocates of local income tax never answer these questions. Which will not prevent some stupid politicians from persisting with the notion.

Watson and race

James Watson, one of the team of four scientists who discovered the double-helix structure of DNA, has come under attack for suggesting that there is some connection between being African or having African ancestry, and having low intelligence.

He seems to be suggesting that there is a genetic component to intelligence which condition in Europe have selected for this attribute more strongly than in Africa, though it is not clear exactly what he getting, but that has not stopped people rushing to attack, and silence him.

The whole subject area is murky, with several strands to this debate. The first is what precisely does intelligence tests measure? The second is whether the whatever-it-measures has a positive, negative or neutral moral value? The third is to what extent it is inherited through DNA and how much is a result of environmental factors? The fourth is whether it fuels racism?

Friends who have worked in Third World countries in Africa and elsewhere relate stories about being in the bush and the resourcefulness of their drivers when things go wrong. The skills that they describe are not the kind of thing that ordinary pencil-and-paper intelligence tests would measure. So the tests themselves need to be regarded with suspicion.

As for the moral value of intelligence, it was Einstein who famously said, on hearing of the atom bomb tests, "I wish I had been a watchmaker". The generals and politicians, and their scientist servants, who hatched the immensely destructive wars of the twentieth century, would no doubt have scored highly in intelligence tests. The quality of a society in terms of the happiness of its members depends more upon the prevalence of positive moral values than on the intelligence of its members. Africa's problems seem primarily to do with the corruption of its politics, and this is largely to do with the way the government of those countries interact with western institutions.

Whether mental capacities are inherited though DNA or environmental factors would be inherently almost impossible to establish. Studies of identical twins are of limited value, as we now know that the ante-natal environment is critical. But poor maternal nutrition and illness will inevitably affect brain development both before children are born and in the early years of their life, whilst poverty itself tends to result in an environment where children are less stimulated by parents, partly, perhaps, for cultural reasons but equally, because they are too busy with just trying to survive.

Sadly but inevitably, to raise this issue is, on the one hand to fuel attacks the one hand from people who cry racism, and on the other, to give propaganda to racists. Ironically, white racists themselves appear to be of well below average intelligence, however measured. This comes to light in Britain when members of the BNP win local elections and often turn out to be unable to handle ordinary council business.

Perhaps white racists should be invited to demonstrate their intelligence by participating in tests? They might get a shock at their low scores.

lördag 20 oktober 2007

Can we, together, lift one village out of the Middle Ages?

That was the subject of an article in today's Guardian. The village was in Uganda, and the people who live there are plauged by malaria, flood, food shortage, poor medical services, inadequate infrastructure, chronic poverty.

Nice to know that something is being done, but we aren't told who owns the land, or why people stay in such a poor environment instead of moving to somewhere better.

It sounds as if these people are living in a marginal location, but if development is successful and lifts it above the margin, it is the villagers who will benefit or will the gains be claimed by the landlords through rent increases?

Sadly, the author of the article has neglected to highlight this important question.

Not this kind of cycle

Copenhagen cycles
Originally uploaded by seadipper.

Although it was high tide when we went to swim this morning, we still had a long walk across the beach to get to the water. This is because today the tides are in their Neap phases, and there is only a 2 metre range between high and low water. In two weeks' time, we will be back to Spring tides and the range will be over six metres.

Everything is cyclic. Anyone who spends a lot of time out of doors or is involved with the sea will know this. The seasons, and the tides, for instance, are all cyclic. The sun rises and sets once every 24 hours. The tides come round roughly twice every 25 hours. Twice a month the tides cycle from Springs to Neaps. And this variation in tides changes with the seasons, and with other factors due to the inclination of the orbits of the earth and the moon. Then there is the 11 year sunspot cycle, which seems to have an effect on the weather. All these changes have astronomical causes.

There are some very long-term astronomical cycles of between 21,000 and 400,000 years, known as Milankovitch cycles, related to the way earth and moon wobble on their axes and move round each other, and round the sun, in orbits which are slightly eccentric. These appear to have an effect on the climate, though there the theory of how this might happen remains contentious. Beyond this, there may be even longer-term cycles as the solar system is in orbit round the centre of the galaxy, taking 225 million years to complete the circuit, with the possibility of encountering all sorts of objects on its way round.

There are also geological cycles. The present continents were formed from the break up of the supercontinent of Pangea, beginning about 200 million years ago. The evidence suggests that Pangea formed about 300 million years ago, and it appears that it came about from the collision of earlier contents, which themselves were the product of the break-up of an earlier supercontinent about 600 million years ago. And when the earth's land is clumped together in a supercontinent, the weather had a tendency to extremes of cold, heat and dryness, whereas when the land is separated into continents, the climate tends towards the wet and temperate.

On top of these cycles, there are biological cycles. Individual creatures and species seem to arise, flourish and decline with the passage of time.

It is also claimed that there are astrological cycles, based on the movents of the planets around the earth, but no-one has shown how the movement of distant and relatively lightweight planets could have a significant long-distance effect, or even that there is any real link can be detected. Possibly, planetary movements are a proxy for something else, but what?

There are economic cycles, too. The most familiar is the boom-bust cycle, of about 18 years. This manifests as a property price boom and bust, but in reality it is a land price irregularity. There have been two since the end of World War 2, with booms ending in crashes in 1974 and 1992. We seem to be heading for another, on schedule in 2010. But what could be the cause? There is a lunar cycle of 19 year, on which the Jewish calender is based. Its relevance is obvious to anyone calculating the dates of eclipses of the sun and moon, but what has that to do with the economy? Another suggestion is that it is related to the internal dynamics of the land market, but how, and why 18 years?

There is much that needs explaining.

More train trouble - French this time

Montbard with TGV
Originally uploaded by seadipper.

I just want to buy a train ticket for a journey in France. I don't even want a reservation.

I went into the French Railways' Piccadilly shop and was told there is a two hour queue. That is nearly as long as the time it takes to travel from London to Paris! Their telephone service is under-staffed so callers just pay to wait and listen to their music. Online booking was useless as the web form will not come up with the station I am trying to go to and there was nowhere to type it in. It will only let you book to the stations on the list.

What is the use of spending all the money on sexy trains and expensive infrastructure if it is not supported by booking facilities and a sensible fares structure?

The problem seems to be Europe-wide.

Postscript - Eventually I got through to someone quite quickly who was very helpful and I got my tickets with nice discount and when I explained that my destination was not on the system they waived the booking fee.

torsdag 18 oktober 2007


What Is Heresy? Summarised from The Great Heresies (Catholic Anwers)

Heresy is an emotionally loaded term that is often misused. It is not the same thing as incredulity, schism, apostasy, or other sins against faith. Heresy is the obstinate post-baptismal denial of some truth which must be believed with divine and Catholic faith.

To commit heresy, one must refuse to be corrected. A person who is ready to be corrected or who is unaware that what he has been saying is against Church teaching is not a heretic.

A person must be baptized to commit heresy. This means that movements that have split off from or been influenced by Christianity, but that do not practice baptism (or do not practice valid baptism), are not heresies, but separate religions. Examples include Muslims, who do not practice baptism, and Jehovah’s Witnesses, who do not practice valid baptism. [Thus, Belloc was technically incorrect when he described Islam as one of the great heresies.]

It is important to distinguish heresy from schism and apostasy. In schism, one separates from the Catholic Church without repudiating a defined doctrine. An example of a contemporary schism is the Society of St. Pius X—the "Lefebvrists" or followers of the late Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre—who separated from the Church in the late 1980s, but who have not denied Catholic doctrines. In apostasy, one totally repudiates the Christian faith and no longer even claims to be a Christian.

The major heresies of Church history are.

The Circumcisers (1st Century)
The Circumcision heresy may be summed up in the words of Acts 15:1: "But some men came down from Judea and were teaching the brethren, ‘Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.’"

Many of the early Christians were Jews, who brought to the Christian faith many of their former practices. They recognized in Jesus the Messiah predicted by the prophets and the fulfillment of the Old Testament. Because circumcision had been required in the Old Testament for membership in God’s covenant, many thought it would also be required for membership in the New Covenant that Christ had come to inaugurate.

Gnosticism (1st and 2nd Centuries)
"Matter is evil!" This idea was borrowed from certain Greek philosophers. It stood against Catholic teaching, not only because it contradicts Genesis 1:31 ("And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good") and other scriptures, but because it denies the Incarnation. If matter is evil, then Jesus Christ could not be true God and true man, for Christ is in no way evil.

Montanism (Late 2nd Century)
Montanus claimed that his teachings were above those of the Church, and soon he began to teach Christ’s imminent return in his home town in Phrygia.

Sabellianism (Early 3rd Century)
The Sabellianists taught that Jesus Christ and God the Father were not distinct persons, but two aspects or offices of one person. According to them, the three persons of the Trinity exist only in God’s relation to man, not in objective reality.

Arianism (4th Century)
Arius taught that Christ was a creature made by God. By disguising his heresy using orthodox or near-orthodox terminology, he was able to sow great confusion in the Church. He was able to muster the support of many bishops, while others excommunicated him.

Arianism was solemnly condemned in 325 at the First Council of Nicaea, which defined the divinity of Christ, and in 381 at the First Council of Constantinople, which defined the divinity of the Holy Spirit. These two councils gave us the Nicene creed, which Catholics recite at Mass every Sunday.

Pelagianism (5th Century)
Pelagius denied that we inherit original sin from Adam’s sin in the Garden and claimed that we become sinful only through the bad example of the sinful community into which we are born. Pelagius stated that man is born morally neutral and can achieve heaven under his own powers. According to him, God’s grace is not truly necessary, but merely makes easier an otherwise difficult task.

Semi-Pelagianism (5th Century)
After Augustine refuted the teachings of Pelagius, some tried a modified version of his system. This, too, ended in heresy by claiming that humans can reach out to God under their own power, without God’s grace; that once a person has entered a state of grace, one can retain it through one’s efforts, without further grace from God; and that natural human effort alone can give one some claim to receiving grace, though not strictly merit it.

Nestorianism (5th Century)
This heresy about the person of Christ was initiated by Nestorius, bishop of Constantinople, who denied Mary the title of Theotokos (Greek: "God-bearer" or, less literally, "Mother of God"). Nestorius claimed that she only bore Christ’s human nature in her womb, and proposed the alternative title Christotokos ("Christ-bearer" or "Mother of Christ").

The Church reacted in 431 with the Council of Ephesus, defining that Mary can be properly referred to as the Mother of God, not in the sense that she is older than God or the source of God, but in the sense that the person she carried in her womb was, in fact, God incarnate ("in the flesh").

Monophysitism (5th Century)
Monophysitism originated as a reaction to Nestorianism. The Monophysites (led by a man named Eutyches) were horrified by Nestorius’s implication that Christ was two people with two different natures (human and divine). They went to the other extreme, claiming that Christ was one person with only one nature (a fusion of human and divine elements). They are thus known as Monophysites because of their claim that Christ had only one nature (Greek: mono = one; physis = nature).

Iconoclasm (7th and 8th Centuries)
This heresy arose when a group of people known as iconoclasts (literally, "icon smashers") appeared, who claimed that it was sinful to make pictures and statues of Christ and the saints.

Catharism (11th Century)
Catharism was a complicated mix of non-Christian religions reworked with Christian terminology. The Cathars had many different sects; they had in common a teaching that the world was created by an evil deity (so matter was evil) and we must worship the good deity instead.

The Albigensians formed one of the largest Cathar sects. They taught that the spirit was created by God, and was good, while the body was created by an evil god, and the spirit must be freed from the body. Having children was one of the greatest evils, since it entailed imprisoning another "spirit" in flesh. Logically, marriage was forbidden, though fornication was permitted. Tremendous fasts and severe mortifications of all kinds were practiced, and their leaders went about in voluntary poverty.

Protestantism (16th Century)
Protestant groups display a wide variety of different doctrines. However, virtually all claim to believe in the teachings of sola scriptura ("by Scripture alone"—the idea that we must use only the Bible when forming our theology) and sola fide ("by faith alone"— the idea that we are justified by faith only).

The great diversity of Protestant doctrines stems from the doctrine of private judgment, which denies the infallible authority of the Church and claims that each individual is to interpret Scripture for himself.

The doctrine of private judgment has resulted in an enormous number of different denominations. According to The Christian Sourcebook, there are approximately 20-30,000 denominations, with 270 new ones being formed each year. Virtually all of these are Protestant.

Jansenism (17th Century)
Jansenius, bishop of Ypres, France, initiated this heresy with a paper he wrote on Augustine, which redefined the doctrine of grace. Among other doctrines, his followers denied that Christ died for all men, but claimed that he died only for those who will be finally saved (the elect).

Ricardo’s Law in brief